12.19.14: ‘The Great Reformer,’ A Biography of Pope Francis

By Molly Worthen

An avalanche of insta-biographies follows every papal conclave. Catholics and outsiders alike are eager to understand the man who is, in effect, the only monarch with meaningful power remaining in the Western world. But almost two years after Pope Francis’ election, many are keen for deeper analysis of this “pope for the poor” known for holding freewheeling news conferences and driving his own 30-year-old Renault.

Austen Ivereigh’s “The Great Reformer” is no insta-book, but a gracefully written and meticulously researched account of Francis’ life. It aims to exonerate the pope once and for all from the charges of his critics, and to correct both liberals and conservatives who misunderstand his “radicalism.” It succeeds almost entirely. His defense of Francis sometimes shades into hagiography, but it is the best English-language biography of the pope to date, and — more important — raises provocative questions about the future of the church and the relationship between religion and secular modernity.

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Image credit: L’Osservatore Romano, via Associated Press